The Marriage of PR and Employee Engagement – Industry Experts Weigh In

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Public relations is defined as “a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.” PR is telling the story of the organization and protecting its reputation on behalf of all stakeholders. Knowing that it’s an organization’s employees that give the company structure, substance, and culture – and not the other way around – it’s vital to engage your workforce in this process.

However, one must be engaged themselves as a PR professional first to be viewed as credible to his or her audience. When the PR employee is perceived as a genuine, ethical and trustworthy colleague, in both favorable and disastrous times the organization and its reputation both win.

In his book, WE, How to Increase Performance and Profits through Full Engagement, author Kevin Kruse defined employee engagement as, “the extent to which employees are motivated to contribute to organizational success and are willing to apply discretionary effort to accomplishing tasks important to the achievement of organizational goals.” Based on a 4-domain model, employee engagement is governed by four primary key drivers: communication, growth, recognition and trust.

A simple exercise mentioned in Kruse’s book is the “We Test.” The test is performed by asking employees to describe the way they refer to their workplace. Is the word “they” used when describing the organization or do employees refer to the organization in “we” terms? “You can tell a lot about an organization’s culture and whether workers are fully engaged in their jobs by how often they use the word “we” as opposed to “they,” “our” or even “I,” states Kruse.

With this in mind, how does PR help to build and enhance employee engagement?

PR needs to be the link in getting employees educated and excited to perform and exceed. “It’s a symbiotic relationship. You really can’t have one without the other,” said Georgina Gonzalez-Robiou, APR, director, marketing & public relations at Baptist Outpatient Services & Baptist Health Enterprises in Miami, Fla. She continued, “employees with a higher level of engagement are more likely to be active on behalf of the organization and serve as brand ambassadors.” Brand ambassadors can be your biggest advocates in the community, be it for charity walks, serving on boards, or representing the organization in various outreach events.

At St. Peter’s Health Partners in Albany, N.Y., engaging the employees as brand ambassadors was the key to a successful merger between two large health systems. “We wanted people in each of the legacy organizations to visibly see people (in a television branding campaign) they recognized as both leaders and co-workers who they truly respected and say to themselves, ‘I know that person, that person has bought into this – I am part of it too’,” said Elmer Streeter, director, corporate communications. The branding built trust and the campaign was centered on collaboration and inclusion. “We wanted the unofficial and official leaders of the system who live the mission to be a part of the campaign,” said Streeter.

Matt Cabrey, executive director, Select Greater Philadelphia, said, “PR not only sets the company tone and shapes the image and reputation for how audiences view the company, it has a direct influence on internal communications and the level of pride employees feel in their role and in the organization.”

Bill Cowen, professor and PR program director, Villanova University and president, Metrospective Communications LLC, said, “Whether through tangible rewards or being given a respected voice at the table, collective and creative employee engagement is more crucial than ever to talent cultivation and retention in PR. This is especially the case with the newer generation of professionals that wants to believe fully in the organization.”

However, keeping employees engaged comes with its challenges. For example, the BP oil spill disaster carried with it negligence on behalf of the rig workers, lack of compensation payouts and continuous internal strife. Were the BP employees kept up to date regarding the changing events? Who was taking the blame? When companies are in survival mode it’s even more important for them to engage their employees.

“Relegating employees to some lesser level of importance during a crisis is a mistake,” said John J. Moscatelli, APR, Fellow PRSA, owner, JJM Communications LLC, who teaches PR at Rowan Universtiy. He continued, “uninformed or ill-informed employees, those relying on rumors and speculation, tend to be distrustful of management, express a lack of confidence in the organization to their friends and neighbors, and, in a worst case, make the crisis even worse.” However, out of chaos comes order. The very definition of PR suggests the relationship itself between the organization and its audiences.

Joe Anthony, president of financial services & partner at Gregory FCA, said, “…thoughtfully deploying key employees in telling the company story and weaving their roles into the company narrative can make them feel more a part of the company culture and direction. We do that here at Gregory FCA and encourage our clients to do the same. It’s not just about “staying in front” of employees, it’s about keeping them working alongside of you. That’s why it’s so important to keep them feeling as if they are in the loop.” BP would have fared better if they had strived to achieve this from the beginning.

Often seen as the face of the organization, and an employee themselves, the PR professional must remember it’s important to keep both sides of PR and employee engagement well represented and all parties informed. And remember that it’s an ongoing process. It must start at the recruiting stage, continue through employment, and flow from top to bottom and bottom to top of the hierarchy chain.

As noted by Kruse, trust is a key driver. “Research shows that employees who feel more pride and trust towards their employer are more satisfied and expend more discretionary energy on their work, enabling them to advance key business objectives and achieve results,” said Cathy Engel Menendez, director, communications, PECO. And that after all, are what companies are in business to do. If PR is telling the story of the organization in a favorable light, what better way than to communicate that by using your biggest assets…your employees.

Meg Boyd is a corporate communications professional who is passionate about PR and employee engagement. She earned a master’s in strategic communication from Villanova University and a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of Dayton. She is currently seeking opportunities. Contact Meg via email at marg.j.boyd@gmail.com or connect with her on LinkedIn.

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Stay Ethical, Don’t Exploit

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When we see an opportunity for a client, it’s in our nature to seize it. It’s our job, after all. It’s also the job of public relations professionals to advocate for clients and we should have the sense to judge what opportunities are appropriate and when they might be crossing a line. Too often companies and organizations are chastised for taking advantage of a current event, pop culture happening or even a tragedy to get their brand attention.

There are plenty of examples where companies took their publicity a step too far after a tragedy or negative occurrence, both accidentally and intentionally.

  • Malaysia Airlines promoted a Bucket List contest, asking consumers what places they’d like to see before they die. This came after the tragic disappearance of Flight 370 and after Flight 17 was shot down over Ukraine.
  • DiGiorno hopped on the hashtag bandwagon a little too quickly after the NFL suspended Ray Rice for abusing his wife. Thousands of Twitter users took to using #WhyIStayed to share their abuse stories and DiGiorno didn’t check the context of the tag before shooting out a response of ‘you had pizza’.
  • MSN’s Biggest PR Blunders of 2014 list rounds up more specifics pretty well.

These companies promptly issued apologies and/or made corrections to their public relations and social media efforts. However, it’s always better not to have to ask for forgiveness because you didn’t stray off the path of ethics in the first place.

The lesson your parents always tried to burn into your brain of “think before you speak” couldn’t be more applicable in our world. In this case it’s more so “think before you act and set your client up for some serious negative backlash”. Trust me, even though you might be receiving dozens of emails asking why they aren’t in the news, asking to get them some press, they would much rather sit back and wait for the right story than jump on board with the wrong one.

How can you be sure to stay ethical and not make the mistakes of these well-known, previously well-respected brands?

  • Trust your instincts
    You know right from wrong. If you are feeling a little wary about pitching a story because you feel it might be exploitive, you’re probably right. It’s not worth potentially ruining your reputation with a journalist and painting your client in a bad light.
  • Ask a mentor
    That’s what they’re there for. If you’ve hit a point where you’re just not sure whether you should go with a story or not, just ask. Chances are you’ll be respected for checking in and you’ll get a good conversation out of it where you might learn a few things.
  • Explain
    So you decided to do the ethical thing and your client isn’t pleased. Instead of getting defensive, walk them through your thought process. Create a case study to show them the negative ramifications of pouncing on a story in an exploitive way. This is what they’re paying you for, after all.

This isn’t to say there won’t be instances where your client’s services, expert advice or products shouldn’t be talked about following a sad event or a bad situation. If the organization offers counseling, for example, they should surely be getting the word out after a tragedy; because what they are doing will help others. There are absolutely ways for brands, organizations and companies to respond to situations appropriately and in a non-exploitive manner. The important thing for public relations professionals to do is make the judgment call.

There are some things you can’t (and shouldn’t) try to put a spin on. Exploiting a sad or bad situation purely for client gain is wrong. Knowing and acknowledging that is what separates the experts from those just trying to climb the ladder.

London Faust is an Account Representative at Bellevue Communications Group, a public relations firm specializing in media relations, crisis communications and issue management. She is forever #TempleMade, class of 2014. Follow her personal ramblings on Twitter at @londonfaust or her professional doings at @BellevuePRPhl.

Give Your Client the Loyal Treatment

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The harsh reality all PR professionals must face is perfectly stated in this line from a recent edition of the Twitter talk show #SmallBizChat: “the majority of your pitches won’t get a response -” Then, as if offering a tiny glimmer of hope, the sentence continues: “but some will.”

It’s true. We all know media pitching is more of an art than it is science. But what happens when your pitch is a home run, the reporter wants the story…then you have to call a timeout?

It sounds like the unthinkable, but as I recently found out, unthinkable doesn’t mean impossible. Here I was, two days away from an interview I’d set up with a veteran reporter from a widely-read daily. All was well until the reporter’s interest shifted–albeit slightly–away from my original pitch. Great for the reporter, not so great for my company’s brand.

A rock and a hard place is an understatement. Yet it was a real life wake-up call that as a PR professional, I must be diligent in the loyalty I have for my company’s strategic goals; even if it means letting go of a media placement I worked so hard to get.

I like to call it the “loyal treatment.” Not unlike kings and monarchs, treat your company and client like royalty when it comes to protecting their brand and public image. Here are a few more tips to remember.

Know your client’s/company’s intended public brand
Ask your client or company’s senior leaders “What do you want the brand to be?” Also, “What don’t you want it to be?” As times change and companies evolve, answers to these questions will inevitably change, so don’t be afraid to ask more than once. The point is, know what the brand is (or isn’t) so you know not to deviate from it when pitching the media.

It’s ok to tell a reporter “no”
I know it sounds crazy given the sheer difficulty involved in getting a reporter to even acknowledge that you exist (unless you work for Apple or some other big name brand that reporters drool over). But trust me on this. If you suspect the end media placement could compromise the brand in any way, respectfully and tactfully decline. Think about it. The repercussions of making your company or client look bad are far worse than one missed opportunity. Which brings me to my next point…

Put yourself in the shoes of the spokesperson
One of the things I love about our work is that we get to make other people look good. In doing this though, we can easily lose sight of the fact that it’s their face, their words, their reputation that’s on the line; not our own. Now ask yourself, “What if it was me?” This change in perspective can make a world of difference when you consider which media placements to pursue.

Have you ever had to give up a media opportunity to protect your company or client? Share your experience and advice in the comments below.

Andrea Carter is a Public Relations Specialist at AWeber, a certified news junkie and an aspiring world traveler. Check out Andrea’s back story here then follow her on Twitter @SheLuvsPR and connect on LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/carterandrea/.

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